Jack Hammond was not a superstitious man, and didn’t buy into portents and bad signs. But he couldn’t shake the quiver of dread that ran through his stomach as he watched the thunderheads from his cabin window. It was a big picture window with a pretty view of the Saint Lawrence River. Beyond it was a deck that wrapped around the cabin. From the relative safety of the cabin, he watched the purple monsters drift through the sky. It was dusk, and they blended with the orange and violet of the sunset, now quickly dimming.
He turned and watched Karen, his twelve-year-old daughter, as she lie on the floor- on her belly. Her IPOD pumped Good Charlotte’s latest offering through her earbuds. Her feet moved in time with the music. Amanda, his wife, sat at the kitchen table. Her nose was buried in the latest J.A. Konrath novel. He wanted at that moment to hug them both tightly and not let go. He couldn’t say why, but it seemed urgent.
It would be roughly an hour when his life would be changed forever.
Jack turned from the window. They had brought a boom box on their camping trip, and Jack went to the kitchen counter and turned the radio on. He was greeted by the hiss of static but then he tuned it until he found a local news station.
Without looking up from her book, Amanda said, “Whatcha doing?”
“Looking to see if the latest Kenny G. single is playing anywhere.”
“Try W-C-R-A-P. You might find it there. Are we going to the caverns?”
“They’re closed, kiddo, remember?”
“You’ll live. Plenty to see on the island.”
He listened to the end of an oldies song and then caught a weather report. There was a severe thunderstorm warning, possible hail and high winds. He didn’t like the sound of that. The bridge they came over to get on the island was a rickety wooden thing that dated back to the Eisenhower administration. He wouldn’t want to go over it in a storm.
“Thunderheads moving in. I’m going to batten down the hatches.”
“Need a hand sailor?”
“I’m good,” he said. He went over, kissed her on the head. Her hair smelled like roses and tea leaves.
As he walked past Karen, he gave her a friendly nudge with his foot. She frowned and went back to listening to her I-POD.
Outside, it had grown darker. The crickets sang in full chorus. He grabbed their beach towels off the clothesline, along with the axe, which he’d used to split logs for the campfire. With the weather coming in, it didn’t much look like they’d have a campfire tonight.
He looked again across the river. The sunlight had been swallowed up. Smoky thunderclouds had mixed with the dark sky. Lightning flashed, and in the distance a flock of geese screamed.
Why the hell am I so nervous about a damned thunderstorm?
He had just started toward the cabin when he heard the roar of an engine, then a blatting horn. It blared repeatedly, sounding like a big truck. Whoever was driving pushed it hard, the big engine revving.
He walked down the stone driveway to the road, which was about thirty yards from the cabin. The horn blared again. He saw the headlights come around the bend. The RV came into view, its driver’s side door open and flapping.
The driver beat on the horn again.
For a moment, Jack was frozen to his spot. He watched the RV roar ahead as if it were in slow motion. It took him another moment to realize two things: it was coming right toward him, and it wasn’t stopping.
Rubber shrieked and the RV gave a tortured groan. Jack couldn’t see the driver and was sure the driver couldn’t see him, or was incapacitated in some way. He had a horrible moment where he envisioned the runaway RV veering toward the cabin, where Karen and Amanda waited, unaware of the danger. He hurried to the cabin steps, climbed them.
The RV charged ahead. Its front wheels rolled over the grassy area next to the driveway. Jack ducked inside, dropped the towels and axe near the door, confident the RV was going to miss the cabin but wanting to be near his wife and daughter. Karen took no notice, lost in her music. Amanda looked up. “What is that noise?”
Before Jack could get a word out, he heard a huge thud, then the grinding of metal. The cabin shook. He turned and looked out the door. Amanda jumped up from the table and came to his side, as did Karen. Apparently a crash of that size was louder than even Good Charlotte’s blaring guitars.
The RV had plowed into a tree near the fire pit. The front end had been crumpled. The windshield shattered. The side door banged open-shut, open-shut. The engine made a tortured gurgling sound and steam poured from the front end. Jack cautiously opened the door. To Karen, he said, “Call the park police. The number’s on a flyer on the bulletin board.”
“I’m on it,” she said. “Hopefully our damned cell works this time.”
Given the remoteness of the cabin, the cell phone service had been spotty.
Jack stepped onto the deck, and Karen began to follow. He put his arm out, blocked her. “Stay here.”
“I want to see. Maybe I can help.”
“Stay put,” he said, and went outside.
“Are they dead?” Karen asked.
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
Jack approached the RV, a big Gulf Stream with a blue stripe across its side. The driver’s seat was empty. He climbed up into the cabin. Looking down, he saw a pair of blue jean-clad legs and their wearer. It was a pudgy bald man with a Syracuse University tee shirt on. It bore dark stains and Jack looked at the man’s neck and saw the source of them: blood leaked from the side of the man’s neck. Jack moved forward, knelt down next to the man. The guy had given it up.
Overhead, thunder crashed, and then the hiss of rain began to patter on the RV’s roof. Jack moved back through the RV, passing through the kitchenette. There was a smudge of a fluid that he knew could only be blood on the Formica tabletop. In the back, in a bunk, he saw someone lying under a blue comforter.
He approached, heart pounding, aware that even in the darkness of the vehicle, he didn’t see the blankets rising and falling. “Hey,” he said. “You okay?”
No answer came.
He paused for a moment, half-expecting the form under the blanket to pop up like a funhouse boogeyman. The person under that sheet was dead, he was sure of it. In Afghanistan, he’d seen his share of the dead, some with faces missing, others burned so badly you wouldn’t guess they were human at one time. This person wasn’t sleeping.
He moved forward and in one motion pulled back the comforter. He found a woman with a tee shirt that matched the dead man’s. At first Jack thought the woman was smiling, but then he realized her lips had been cut away and jagged slashes made in the cheeks. He looked at her hands and saw that the fingers had been removed, the stumps bloody and ragged. He didn’t see a mortal wound, but it was there somewhere.
He scanned the RV. Dots of blood stained the carpet. It didn’t look as if there’d been a struggle. The only sign of a mess was the blood stain on the table. Jack would’ve thought there’d have been papers and clothes strewn about, things knocked over. What the hell happened?
Not wanting to touch the body, he backed up to the front seats, stepped over the dead man, and climbed out of the RV.
Outside, the rain assaulted him. It came in sideways, the wind throwing it in his face. He hurried to the cabin door, where Amanda and Karen stood, watching him.
“Well?” Amanda asked.
“Did you get anyone on the cell?”
“The parks police aren’t answering.”
He didn’t like that. “Watch out,” he said, opening the door and stepping inside.
“Jack? Did they?”
He looked at Karen, who had begun to chew her lower lip. The earbuds still dangled from her ears but she had shut the music off. He debated making her go in her bedroom while he spoke to Amanda, but the girl would find out anyway.
“They’re dead. A man and a woman.”
“Didn’t survive the crash?” Amanda asked.
“Someone killed the woman. She was – cut up. Missing fingers. I don’t know if it was the driver, but he had a wound in his neck. I doubt it was him that killed the woman. They were running from someone.”
“Jesus,” Amanda said, and shut the inner cabin door. She clicked the passageway lock shut.
“Did someone really kill them?” Karen asked.
“Looks that way, kiddo. I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Jack said.
“The police will come, sweetie. Someone had to have heard the crash.”
Jack didn’t know about that. The road wound away from their cabin, theirs being the last one on the road. There were other cabins a few miles down the road, each several hundred yards a part. “We’re driving up to the parks police station. It’s right near the entrance.”
“We should stay put. Help will come,” Amanda said.
“I’m with mom. The weather’s lousy, too,” Karen said.
He didn’t like the idea of sitting here waiting. The perpetrator of the crime could be long gone, or he could be looking for more victims. The cabin had a flimsy lock, and the picture window could be easily shattered. “We’ll take a ride up, let them know. Maybe the storm’s got their phones messed up. I don’t want to sit here and wait.”
“For what, Dad?”
Amanda looked at him, waiting for Jack to finish his sentence. After thirteen years of marriage, she probably knew exactly what he was thinking. Wait for some maniac to show up at our cabin.
Amanda said, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to drive up there.”
From the top of the fridge, Jack grabbed a hatchet he’d brought for chopping kindling. He also took a buck knife from the top of the fridge. Karen, seeing him do this, said, “I hope you don’t need those, dad.”
“Me neither, kid,” he said, and bending over, kissed her cheek.
Amanda grabbed her cell phone and the raincoats hanging on the coat hook near the door. She handed Jack his navy blue slicker and he put it on. With the hatchet and knife in hand, he went to the door and looked out. No sign of police, or anyone else. The road was dark and desolate as the surface of the moon.
The wind drove the rain against the door in bloated drops and it splattered as it hit. The RV was a big white blur through all the rain.
Their Explorer was parked about fifteen feet from the cabin and was barely visible, the rain and darkness cloaking it. “I’ll go first,” Jack said, thinking of the clump of woods that surrounded the cabin, and that it would make an excellent hiding spot for an intruder. He placed the knife, still sheathed, in his belt. In his right hand he held the hatchet, and his left the car keys. “Wait here. I’ll open the car door and then you two run out.”
He took the first step, not quite feeling as scared as when his unit went into caves looking for Taliban – but it was close. He half-expected to be knocked over, tackled by the maniac that killed the people in the RV.
Once outside, he descended the steps and moved to the car. The rain pelted him. He got the door open, scanning the trees for any signs of movement. When he was sure no one was lurking nearby, he waved for Amanda and Karen to follow.
Karen came first. Jack watched her hit the second step and her foot kicked out and she flopped on the steps, letting out a small grunt. Amanda, who had turned to lock the door, now was crouched over, saying “Karen, you okay?”
Karen was getting to her feet, and Jack heard her mutter, “Fuck” under her breath. Normally he would’ve reprimanded her, but under the circumstances, he let it slide.
“You okay kiddo?” Jack called.
Amanda was at Karen’s side, took her by the elbow.
Karen said, “Just bruised my butt, I’m sure.”
They climbed into the Explorer. After setting the hatchet down between the seats, Jack started the Explorer up and pulled down the driveway.
As they pulled onto the road, a blast of thunder that sounded like the hammer of God shook the truck. The storm had brought bad things, after all.